Thursday, November 10, 2011

And we're off!

Practice is always more fun when you're winning.
Well, the season is underway.  As I write this, your Cottonmouths have a 3-1-1 record.  I'm fairly certain that this is the best record we've had after 5 games in my 5 seasons in Columbus.   In the past, we've had a tendency to start off slowly and I've always attributed that to the high turnover rate associated with lower-minor league hockey.  It's hard to teach systems to a bunch of new players with the few days of practice in training camp.  Yes, other teams do it year after year.  But maybe Jerome's system is just a little more complex than those of some other coaches.  I think once the players get it figured out to the point where it comes naturally to them and each guy knows where he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to do, then it's just a matter of fine-tuning little details here and there as needed.  I maintain that that's why we've always finished strong.  Once the system becomes second nature it's just a matter of character and chemistry...and Jerome gets good character guys.  With us returning most of last year's roster this season, Jerome didn't have to spend as much time teaching.  He could focus on the new guys and the older guys could help out when one of the new guys was unsure of what to do.  We have a good core of players from last year and a few key additions should help round out the roster.

As training camp wound down, we hit a minor bump in the road.  Forward Sam Bowles had an MRI done on his knee, which had been bothering him since he hurt it during off-season workouts, and it was determined that he needed surgery.  As luck would have it, we had just picked up a new player, Derek Pallardy, whose presence allowed us to sit Sammy out for the first week of the season to rehab his injury.  Pally fit right in, scoring the Snakes' first goal of the season just over a minute into the home opener.  Despite the early start, we lost the game 4-3 against a hat-trick from Pensacola forward Jason Chong.  I was really hoping that Dave Cianfrini would lay a big hit on Jason just so that our fans could hear Cheech and Chong mentioned in the same sentence.  While that never happened, we certainly got to hear the name Chong mentioned more than we would have liked.  You might say he made our home opener go "Up In Smoke".

The next night, the Cottonmouths had a 3-2 lead entering the third, but Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn's second goal of the game tied it at 3-3 and eventually forced overtime and the ensuing shootout.  None of the Snakes managed to dent the twine behind Surge Goalie Kiefer Smiley and Shawn Skelly got credit for the game-winner in the shootout.

The next week presented another dilemma for Jerome.  With Sam Bowles due to return to the lineup, somebody else would have to go to make room on the roster.  Once again, there were several players on the bubble.  The final decision came down to Daryl Moore.  He wasn't playing badly, but Jerome felt that he wasn't playing better than other, younger players.  So Moore was out and Bowles was back in, with still one more decision to be made the next week upon Jesse Cole's return.

The following weekend saw the Ice Flyers return for a rematch of opening night.  This time we were hoping for a better result.  Scorin' Orrin gave us a lead with a short-handed goal in the first period.  After Mike Carter tied the game at 1-1 in the second, Brett Hammond gave the Snakes a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal in the third.  Dan Buccella scored later in the period to force overtime and it looked like we were going to repeat opening night.  This time, however, John Sullivan scored just 47 seconds into the extra frame to give the Snakes our first win of the season.

After starting off 1-1-1 at home, we took our show on the road.  We rolled into Memphis (actually Southaven, Mississippi) for our first game at the DeSoto Civic Center against the newest SPHL team, the Mississippi Riverkings.  We were all looking forward to this game because during the off-season former Snakes defenseman Kyle Lundale was picked up by the Riverkings in the expansion draft.  This would be the first time any of us has seen him since he left Columbus.

I ran into Lundy in the hall before the game.  He's still the same old Lundy.  He said he misses Columbus but likes it in Mississippi.  I can't blame him.  It's a cool city (I love Beale Street) and they have a really good facility.  Plus, he can go visit Graceland any time he wants.  And the BBQ there is world-renowned.

I'm not exactly sure what happened, but it seemed as though they started the game without us.  We were there...we just didn't seem to be involved in what was happening around us.  Midway through the first period, the Riverkings won a faceoff in our defensive zone back to Lundale, who threw a wrister towards the net.  It must have gone through a screen, because it wasn't a very hard shot but somehow found its way past Vigier and into the net.  It seems like that's always the way it goes...the former Snakes always seem to come back to bite us in the end (pun intended).  Just 25 seconds later another D-zone faceoff was lost back to the Riverkings defenseman who again threw the puck into the net.  When you see one goal like that it's not a big deal...but when you see 2 of them back-to-back you kind of get that "Oh, no" feeling.  Then about a minute and a half later we took a penalty and the 'Kings scored a power-play goal just 10 seconds later, for a total of 3 goals in a 2-minute span. We were all kind of shell-shocked.  We managed to make it through the first period without further damage, holding on by the skin of our teeth. I walked past the locker room just as Jerome was reading the riot act to the boys.  I was glad I wasn't in there.

Whatever he said worked because we came out looking like a completely different team in the second.  We still only managed 7 shots on goal (compared to 4 in the first period) but 2 of those found their way to the back of the net.  Goals by Jordan Braid and Mitch Wall sent us to the locker room down by only one goal at the end of 2 periods.

We continued to chip away in the third period, with Sully tying the game midway through the frame.  Levi Lind's goal at the 18:35 mark of the third completed the comeback.  I would say it was our best game of the season, except for the first period.  So, really, it was the best 2 periods we had played all season.  Yeah, that's it.

The axe fell once again the following week.  With Jesse Cole due to return we cut Morgan James to make room on the roster.  I felt bad about this one.  Morgan was a good kid (and my roommate, briefly).  He just wasn't ready to play at this level.  He was brought here for his toughness...and he brought plenty of that.  We just couldn't afford to keep a guy who wasn't going to play a regular shift.  Although this is considered a developmental league, with only 56 games we don't have a lot of time to carry players who aren't likely to contribute much.  Jerome helped find him a place to play in the Federal League, which is the best thing for him.  He needs ice time to work on improving his game, and he wasn't likely to get that here.  Still, I'll miss the big lug.  Take care and good luck, roomie!

After a full week of practice (for some reason, the SPHL saw fit to give us both Friday and Saturday off, but schedule us to play a game at home on Sunday afternoon) we met the Fayetteville Fireantz for the first time with their new coach, Sean Gillam.  Like us, the Antz had won 2 games, but one of those wins came against the league-leading Augusta Riverhawks.  With both teams on a bit of a roll, this was shaping up to be a marquee matchup.

As is often the case, the actual game didn't live up to the hype.  The most noteworthy thing about this game was that it was the first time we saw the 2-referee system.  I understand the logic...if one referee is awful then 2 must be horrendous (just kidding, guys).  The Snakes jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Jordan Braid and Sam Bowles.  Brett Needham got the Fireantz on the board early in the second period to trim the deficit to 2-1, but Jordan Braid scored again 2 1/2 minutes later to close out the scoring.  There were some fireworks in the middle of the second period.  Dave Cianfrini tried to put a check on a Fireantz player, who sidestepped the check.  Cheech tried to stretch out his body to complete the hit but only managed to get the guy with his leg.  The result was a leg-on-leg hit that sent the Fireantz player flying.  Brett Needham took exception and came to his teammate's defense, instigating a fight.  Cheech held his own against a tough competitor and they both went to the box.  Mitch Wall fought the Antz' Kyle McNeil 2 minutes later.  The rest of the game was fairly uneventful as the Snakes cruised to a 3-1 victory.

After 3 weeks of play and 5 games, the Snakes are 3-1-1 and in 3rd place in the league.  It's the best 5-game start since I've been here and I hope it continues.  It's going to be a tough road, but I like our chances. Stay tuned.

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